If Thomas Edison‘s light bulb is still an international symbol of innovation today —and the result of one of the greatest collective feats of humanity in the 19th century— in the history of technology we must also celebrate one of its heirs: neon lights. They were the result of combining the latest developments in chemistry and physics from the early 20th century, in an ingenious mix devised by Georges Claude (24 September 1870 – 23 May 1960), who is remembered today as “the French Edison.”
Just as the American inventor did not invent the light bulb, but turned it into a practical device and made its commercialisation viable, Claude did something similar with his neon lights, which he presented at the 1910 Paris Motor Show (held from 3 to 18 December), adorning the façade of the building with two enormous neon tubes, over 12 metres long, and a bright red light; this is how Georges Claude dazzled the crowds in the first public demonstration of his ingenuity, after having registered his patent in March of that same year.
His audacity provided an unexpected use for neon, an element that had been discovered only very recently. In 1898, William Ramsay and Morris Travers succeeded in separating pure neon gas from the air we breathe. While chemists were celebrating the fact that they could add the new element to the group of noble gases in the Periodic Table—under helium, right in the hole that Mendeleev had reserved for it—physicists began to study its properties using the typical gas discharge tubes of the time (into which they introduced gases at low pressure). Travers himself was the first to fall in love with neon light, which appeared in the tube upon applying an electric current of several thousand volts: “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.”
From mere curiosity to useful gas
Neon lights were born, therefore, along with the discovery of this new noble gas. But for a while they were only used as mere curiosity —because neon was very rare, among other reasons— until Georges Claude entered this story. Claude had been experimenting with noble gases for some time and also founded a company to liquefy air in 1902 (Air Liquide, which today is one of the leading multinational gas producers). As a by-product of his method of liquefying air, Claude began producing tons and tons of neon gas, and also developed a method for purifying it once it was inside a sealed glass tube. His second invention was crucial and meant that neon lights could have an acceptable lifespan, as it managed to prevent the degradation of the electrodes that apply the current to the ends of the tube.
Claude’s patents described tubes up to 30 metres long, using conventional electrical installations, and also contemplated adding other gases such as helium, argon and mercury vapor to achieve all kinds of colours other than red neon. All the ingredients were there, but Claude’s second big business venture took some time to catch on. In the 1920s, he took his invention to the United States and, little by little, it began being used in advertisements, until eventually it became all the rage in the big cities. Over the following decades, neon lights changed the face of emblematic places such as Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London, even becoming a typical complement to art-deco architecture.
The decline and the reinvention
Its popularity declined in the second half of the 20th century in the Western world, but it continued to spread throughout the booming metropolises of Japan, Iran and Hong Kong. By then, fluorescent tubes (a close relative of neon lights) had begun to arrive in homes and offices, and much later the tubes were converted into tiny lights to illuminate plasma TVs. This new life reinforces the idea of neon lights as a great symbol of the innovation of the past century, now that the use of polluting materials and their high energy consumption have made them a relic of the past; where they still survive they are being replaced by LED tubes.
Claude did not live to see the decline and reinvention of his technological brainchild. He died in 1960, stripped of the honours he had accumulated by being “the Edison of France.” Accused of collaborationism during the Nazi occupation of his country, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of World War II. He was in prison for 6 years and upon his release he was recognised for his final contribution to technological history: a pioneering pilot plant in Matanzas (Cuba) to extract clean energy from the sea, taking advantage of the difference in temperature between the surface and the bottom of the ocean.